Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New Biography: Great Soul

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld

There have been many books written on Mahatma Gandhi over the years, and so it seems incumbent upon a reviewer who recommends a new title to readers that he explain how it might add to our understanding of one of the major figures of the 20th Century. Lelyveld writes of Gandhi, “He never worshipped idols himself and generally seemed indifferent to the clouds of reverence that swirled around him. Always he demanded a response in the form of life changes.” It is that side of Gandhi, the thought that went beyond the mere politics of independence for India and prompted him to seek more fundamental social changes, that is Lelyveld’s primary concern. It makes this book an interesting and important elaboration of Gandhi’s character, one that gives us a better understanding of his lasting contribution and current relevance.

So what the reader will find in this book is not a complete biographical and political chronology of Gandhi’s life. Some periods are not covered in great detail. Instead, Lelyveld focuses on those periods of Gandhi’s life that he views as especially formative and germane to his thought and help to best illuminate his actions. Lelyveld finds Gandhi’s time in South Africa particularly important, and a good portion of the book is devoted to that period of Gandhi’s life. He also looks in detail at the last years of Gandhi’s life, and the frustration he experienced as events in the course of Indian Independence seemed to take on a life of their own, one that seemed so contrary to Gandhi’s own vision and hopes, as Pakistan and India were partitioned, ethnic and religious violence tore apart both countries, and the caste system and un-remediated plight of the poor remained unchanged after the birth of the new nation. Indian politicians placed Gandhi on a pedestal as “Father of the Nation,” but were less inclined to accept his teachings. He found himself used in such a role at the same time he came to realize that few of his followers paid more than lip service to his ambitious goals of social justice for his country’s minorities, outcasts, and rural poor. But it was the universality of Gandhi’s vision of social justice, the one that demanded “a response in the form of life changes,” that makes his thought and hopes still relevant in the new century, a way of looking at the world that whatever its successes and defeats in India remains a challenge to the social conscience of people everywhere.

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